46. Chapter 45
Even all these years later, I still find it hard to come to terms with the extraordinary twist of fate that had brought me to the heart of my mother's family. Or that Angon's pride and disdain for the Hillmen had condemned me to the cold hard life of a castle rat when I could have grown up amongst my own, loved and cherished. Despite everything he had done for me, and the love I had borne him I could not help but feel rage at what he had denied me, and no longer wished to have anything to do with him. He could only have made his offer of fatherhood the last time we met out of guilt and selfish need.
My aunt held me for what were for me a few blissfully happy moments, for I belonged to somebody again and even as a grown man it felt wonderful. I had known there was something special about her and now I remembered my mother talking about the quiet gentle sister she had left behind, and the handsome farmer's son who had wooed her and won her heart. Then she drew away from me and wiped a tear off my cheek with her finger and led me over to the old man by the fire. "Faelneth's boy?" he said, "how can this be? Come close so I can see you" His voice was querulous now. I knelt down and he came close and touched me with a gnarled hand that had seen much hard labour. "Yes, yes" he smiled. "I see her in you, yes. How can this be? You have come back to us". He leaned forward to embrace me in turn, and I remember being filled with many emotions, but most of all a slightly foolish joy that I had a grandfather again.
Aelred sat at the table, a look of shock and confusion on his face, his fists clenched on the table. "Aelred, will you not greet your cousin?" asked the old man. "For it is Faelneth's boy without a doubt". Aelred gathered his wits and replied stiffly. "Cousin he may be, but he has marched with the army that has murdered and stolen its way across our land, killed our chieftain and now rules in High Burgh without pity or mercy. Let him account for his part in all of it before I will call him kin". I left my grandfather's side, and suddenly deflated sat back down wearily in my chair with all eyes in the room fixed on me. "I will not gainsay you, for I have seen many terrible things since we marched from Bearcliffe at the end of last year which will haunt me until my dying day. But I swear that I whilst I fought in the battle at Greenhow, I took no part in what followed. Our companies were ordered to hold the field rather than join the assault on the town, and at no time since have I harmed any save in battle. Yet I am not innocent, for I have stood by and done nothing while others did terrible deeds, for I knew that to do otherwise would have meant my own death, and I did not have the strength or courage to face it. For when a man is under arms, to refuse or deny an order is treason, and punishable by the axe". The old man stirred. "It is so. I have been a soldier too in my time, and to refuse or challenge an order is a grave matter, more so in time of war". I waited, but he did not continue, sitting in agitated silence, perhaps lost in some painful memory, so after a while I went on. "So I have lived without honour and in despair, hating my weakness with no means of escape being bound to my service, and my death in the snow would have been a mercy. Aelred, I do not expect forgiveness from you, for I save none for myself, but at least try to understand the terrible bind I found myself in. It may well be that your Thain will have my head anyway, for it is little more than I deserve, but my end will be eased now having known you, my family, for a short while at least". Silence fell, interrupted by the pop of a log on the fire and as I sat with my head bowed I felt a soft hand close on my shoulder in a gesture of comfort.
Aelred said nothing, and kept his own counsel during the meal of broth and hard bread that followed, but his apparent hostility had been replaced with a thoughtful expression as he listened to his mother's gentle questioning regarding her sister, the life she had led in Northford and my childhood there. My grandfather also asked questions or indicated his agreement or approval as I spoke with her, and thinking about her brought many memories back that I was able to share with them. Eventually with the fire burning low and my strength beginning to ebb Haelwen rose from her chair and declared that it was time for her father and I to take our rest. As she helped me up from my chair Aelred rose and came over, brushing her aside and taking my arm himself helped me from the room, his great hounds following expectantly. "I am only a simple farmer" he said "and I cannot know what terrible things you must have endured, but you do not seem a bad man to me. I will call you cousin". Haelwen smiled brightly at this and the old man nodded his approval, and I bid them both good night and returned to my room where I lay awake for a short while full of childish happiness before a deep and restful sleep took me.
Over the next few days my strength began to return, and I spent much of my time in the main room by the fire, speaking with my family and learning more of them. Here in the Northern Shaws life had continued relatively undisturbed by the tides of the world up until now. They were farmers and hunters, living as their forefathers had done for long ages in scattered villages and hamlets, and though they were generally poor they rarely went short of anything. Families, especially larger ones, often sent a son or daughter or two to High Burgh or one of the towns in the Hoarwell Valley to earn a living in the army or in service, and ours had been no exception in that respect. Their farm was the furthermost up the vale where it lay, and others were scattered along its length, a pleasing patchwork of occasional meadows and cultivated plots surrounded by forest through which a lively stream ran. About a league upstream of the farm the vale forked, and it was the other branch which would have taken me on the road I sought. In a twist of good fortune I had missed it as I wandered blindly in the snow, and the main course of the vale had taken me gradually back round to the south. The farm itself was built in the traditional style and was of great age, a low rectangular building of cob and thatch, with small shuttered windows inset in walls of great thickness. Somewhat less than half of the building housed the family, the rest was given over to a byre and hayloft to house and feed their livestock. The whole was set in a very pleasing position above the torrent and surrounded by forest and crag, and I thought with a pang what a wonderful place it would have been to grow up.
My grandfather Aelfwine had originally been one of those who had left the vale, and was a soldier in the service of the Chieftain for a while, during which time he travelled widely in Rhudaur, and fought in one of the long forgotten campaigns against Cardolan. But his father had begun to ail at a relatively young age and he was allowed to return to take over the running of the farm. When Haelwen's husband died as the result of an accident there were no other close male relations in a position to replace him so Aelred, though still young in the reckoning of the Hillmen replaced him. By their lore and custom this exempted him from all service under arms, so whilst other young men of his age in the vale had marched off to High Burgh to support the uprising he had been obliged to remain where he was, much to his chagrin. I did what I could, as I suspected his grandfather had already done to disabuse him of any illusions he had harboured about the reality of life as a soldier. I did however promise to teach him some swordplay when I was better if the opportunity arose. I did not know if it would, for they had resolved to keep my presence a secret from the Thain and so I was kept hidden from the sight of passers by and had to be ushered quickly away back to my room when visitors called, which was fortunately not very often.
I wanted nothing more than to remain with them, for I would no longer be missed in High Burgh and it would simply be assumed that I had perished with the rest of Tharon's company at Deepvale, and it was an opportunity to begin afresh. However many difficulties lay in the way of such a scheme, for even with a full beard and the right clothes I would never pass for a Hillman, and many awkward questions would inevitably be asked about who I was and where I had come from. Even if we were somehow able to overcome that hurdle there would inevitably be worse, for without a tie to the land I would be expected to answer any call to arms, and might find myself facing my old comrades, even Daeron himself, and I balked at that thought. I was no traitor, and the thought of reneging on my vows of service and dishonouring the memory of my father and my other grandfather was another I could not stomach. My time with my family became increasingly bittersweet, for we all knew that once the tardy spring drove the snows sufficiently to reopen the way northward I would have to leave. This became inevitable once news reached us that a large force had come out of High Burgh and sacked the town of Deepvale in revenge for what had happened there. Although there was little loss of life on this occasion there was now no chance of my presence being met with anything other than great hostility by the Thain and his men, and indeed it now put my family in grave danger.
So it was that I left them late one evening and began to retrace my steps under the light of a full moon, carrying a well provisioned satchel and back in my army gear. The parting was bitter indeed, and though we said many words to comfort each other about my returning there in better times we all knew that they were spoken far more in hope than in expectation, especially where old Aelfwine was concerned. Many tears were shed, and it still pains me deeply to think of it to this day. I do not know what became of them and their farm, but I hope they did not suffer overmuch in the years that followed, and I will always be grateful and honoured that I knew them even if it was only for a short time.